A young boy stands next to his mother and father in the aisle of an office supplies store. The family is facing a wall full of writing utensils and other back-to-school supplies, with the father reaching to pull an item off the shelf.

Back-to-School Budget-Friendly Shopping List

Back-to-school shopping needs can include supplies, clothing, shoes, electronics and more. Learn which items should go on your must-buy list.

Portrait of Lora Shinn

Lora Shinn
Published Aug 3, 2023 in: Spending & Shopping

Read time: 7 minutes

With kids' summer activities in full swing, many families of K-12 kids are already starting to think about the upcoming school year. Planning ahead can help ensure you have everything you need and can help you save money by giving you time to shop around for deals and include school supplies in your family budget. But it can be tough to figure out what you need, when you need it and how to prioritize.

A recent National Retail Federation survey shows 94% of parents planned to buy school supplies, while another 2023 Deloitte survey noted that most consumers plan to prioritize supplies over apparel or other items.

You can choose supplies based on your school's published list, usually published in July or August, which can vary by grade level and teacher. Some schools ask for supplies that are shared with the class.

In the meantime, use our handy supply checklist to ensure you have everything you need.

School Supplies Checklist

Organization Tools Checklist

School organization supplies help contain clutter and tools for everyday use. These include:

Paper Checklist

Depending on your child's age and grade, you may be asked to get various lined and unlined paper. Be sure you know whether your child's teacher asks for wide-ruled or college-ruled paper before you buy it. Paper supplies might include:

Writing Supplies Checklist

Mechanical pencils are often a coveted item — and often outsell regular pencils. But the teacher may prefer old-fashioned No. 2 pencils that require a sharpener instead. You may be asked to buy the following:

Art Supplies Checklist

Art supplies are often on the school supply list for elementary grades, particularly kindergarten through third grade. These include:

Math Supplies Checklist

Elementary schools may ask for rulers and protractors. Pay attention to calculator specifications by the time your child reaches middle school because required features can differ by course. A few math supplies that may be needed:

Personal Supplies Checklist

Many of the below are optional or depend on whether your child qualifies for free or reduced lunch, wants to buy school lunch or can reuse last year's backpack, water bottle and lunchbox.

  • Backpack.
  • Insulated lunchbox or lunch bag.
  • Reusable water bottle.
  • Reusable freezer pack.
  • Hair care (comb, hair ties, or styling products).
  • Tissues.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes.
  • Menstruation (period) supplies.
  • Print the full school supplies checklist (PDF).

Gold Star Bonus: Class Supplies Checklist

Some teachers depend on or appreciate parent help to support everyday needs for the whole class.

  • Disinfecting wipes.

Clothing Checklist

According to the NRF survey, 93% of parents planned to buy clothing for the return to school. Within this category, USDA data (PDF) shows that buying clothing accounts for 5% to 7% of a family's household budget throughout the year.

The USDA noted that costs increase as children grow older, particularly during the tween and teen years, ages 12-17. A combination of rapid changes — including growth spurts and fashion trends — can add up fast.

Everyday Clothing Checklist

  • 1-2 jackets or flannels.
  • 5-7 jeans, pants or skirts.
  • 7-10 long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts.
  • 1-2 sweaters.
  • 2 sets of PE clothes (shirt, shorts, socks), one for washing and one for wearing.
  • Print the full school supplies checklist (PDF).

Basics Clothing Checklist

Outerwear Checklist 

Shoes Checklist

The NRF survey shows 91% of parents planned to buy shoes. They may face some sticker shock; kids' shoe prices have skyrocketed into double-digit percentages (PDF) in recent years. On average, a pair of shoes costs $144.

Look for a good value, as you may return to the shoe department sooner than you think. According to the Institute for Preventive Foot Health, a pair of children's shoes only lasts four months on average. Much depends on shoe quality and steps taken — girls average 10,000-13,000 steps daily, while boys average 12,000-16,000. So, think about the year's total costs when shopping for:

Second-hand apparel can be an excellent way to save money. But the Institute for Preventive Foot Health discourages used or hand-me-down athletic shoes, as these shoes wear down to accommodate the previous owner's feet and gait.

Electronics Checklist

Electronics are the most expensive category of back-to-school shopping. But overall, in recent years, consumers aren't as excited about spending on kids' devices. In 2022, the category's market growth dropped by 8%, according to a survey by Deloitte. In 2023, tech's growth decreased another 13%.

But 81% of parents in the 2022 survey also said their child's school provided any required technology.

Electronics that a school may require or may want you to get include:

Other Surprise Expenses

While you may not add these items to your shopping list, you might budget for the following:

  • Out-of-pocket sports physical check up costs, including copays or coinsurance.
  • Field trips.
  • After-school clubs and programs.
  • After-school childcare.
  • Donations. 

Get Help With Back-to-School Expenses

Depending on income and location, your family may qualify for free school supplies and back-to-school clothing. A few organizations offering free supplies, clothing, and vouchers:

For example, Assistance League provides students pre-selected from King County's Eastside school districts in Washington state, with $100 shopping vouchers. Children can shop for clothes, shoes, supplies and other necessities.

In general, a good place to start to get financial help with school supplies is with your child's school or school district.

If you want to help others in our community, The Seattle Times School Drive raises funds for Hopelink, YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness to provide 3,500+ students with new backpacks filled with supplies.

Portrait of Lora Shinn

Lora Shinn

Lora specializes in personal finance topics for BECU, and has also written for regional and national publications such as The Balance, U.S. News and World Report, LendingTree, GoodRx, CNN Money, Bankrate, The Seattle Times, Redbook and Assurance IQ.